Can the Republicans take Congress?

Forecasting the outcome of the coming presidential election would at this stage be essentially not much more than daring guesswork. But this is not necessarily so for forecasting the overall outcome in the congressional races. Over the past 40 years, covering ten presidential election years, voting for president and voting for 435 congressmen seem to have run separate courses.

In three of the four presidential elections when Republican candidates won the presidency (1952, 1956, 1968, and 1972), Democrats won majorities in the Congress. In the other six presidential elections won by the Democrats (Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944, Truman in 1948, Kennedy in 1960, Johnson in 1964, and Carter in 1976) Democrats elected majorities to the Congress. Thus, if you are statistically minded, you may say that the chances the Republicans will control the next Congress are unusually slim, only one chance in ten.

That one chance takes us back to 1952, the year of the first election of a very popular Republican president, Eisenhower. While he received 55 percent of the popular vote only 221 congressional Republican candidates were elected, just three over the minimum required for control. In the second Eisenhower election in 1956, when he received 58 percent of the popular vote, Republicans elected only 201 of their congressional candidates.

Republicans fared even worse in the other two presidential elections, those of Nixon in 1968 and 1972, with a bare majority for Nixon in 1968 (about 50 percent) and a very substantial Nixon majority in 1972 (62 percent). Republicans elected only 192 of their congressional candidates in 1968 and 1972.

In the other six presidential elections we find about the same range of percentages by which the Democratic presidential candidates were elected. Kennedy in 1960 won by only 50.1 percent compared with the same small margin that elected Nixon in 1968. Johnson in 1964 won by 61 percent. But there is no clear relation between presidential popularity and results in congressional races. The smallest number of Democrats elected to Congress was 243 in the Roosevelt year of 1944 and the highest was 295 in 1964, the election which followed and probably reflected in part public response to the tragic death of Kennedy in 1963 as well as the preference for Johnson over Goldwater.

The relation between the Democratic vote for president and the number of Democratic congressmen elected is not very close. The elections of 1960 (Kennedy) and 1976 (Carter) were borderline Democratic victories, but were accompanied by substantial Democratic congressional victories (262 in 1960 and 275 in 1976). The wider Democratic presidential victories (by 55 percent in 1940 and 61 percent in 1964) were also accompanied by substantial congressional victories, 261 in 1940 and 295 in 1964.

Some Republican leaders have expressed their expectation that with a sweeping victory for Reagan the Republicans will also take over the Congress. The foregoing record should give them pause, for whether Carter or Reagan is elected the odds strongly favor Democratic control of Congress for the next four years.

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